January 13, New York: The Wire was one of the original inspirations of this project. How could I make time to re-watch The Wire when there is so much other great television being produced? In what world could I possibly carve out five whole seasons of hour-long drama? I think my answer— taking a monk’s vow against new media for a year— was probably a bit more extreme than most faced with this conundrum, but nonetheless, I got to re-watch The Wire this year. And it was oh so good.
My notes from watching are just a series of exclamations. (“Omar!”; “Avon is such a great manager!” “Prop Joe!”; “Stringer takes the Acela to New York!”) From the jump, the first season is so rich with characters. Stringer is in a suit taking notes in the courtroom in the very first episode and when McNulty looks at his notepad it’s a drawing of a superhero with a giant speech bubble: “Fuck you Detective!” Omar, the dark prince of the stick-up boys, schools the detectives in how to do their jobs: “If I was constabulatin’ like y’all…” Kima and Bubbles and Marlo and Daniels, all perfectly unique and fascinating. Even Carv and Herc have depth to them.
This is really the genius of The Wire, the characters manage to be so unique in a world where thin archetypes would get by just fine. The script calls for a Narcotics Anonymous sponsor with his own history of drug abuse? We get Steve Earle (Steve Earle!) who delivers an opening monologue about selling his “na-tion-al steel gui-tar”. The script calls for a smart little hopper to rise up in the game? We get Bodie. Bodie the workhorse who hates “News from Lake Woebegone”. (Me too, buddy!) And the script calls for a business-minded COO of a drug ring? We get Stringer Bell. Business class-attending, downtown property-buying, Stringer fucking Bell, one of my favorite characters in all of TV. His role loomed so large that in my memory (SPOILER) he didn’t die until Season Five. Alas, we bid him farewell in the third.
When people talk about watching The Wire, they tend to talk about favorite seasons. Or rather, debating their least favorite season. For many, it’s the second, the season that takes place down on the docks, as it’s not well connected to the rest of the seasons and characters. I always kind of liked #2. Actually in this viewing it was the fifth and final season I found lacking.
And I hated that McNulty is drinking again.
I had a conversation with my colleague Lara (who is re-watching without making a whole public to-do about it) about how thin Season Five was. Her point: the newsroom characters are not rich in the least, they are exactly the sort of TV archetypal characters that the rest of the show avoids. Gus, the beleaguered editor. The empty suit executive editor. The Jayson Blair-modeled over-ambitious reporter who’s faking quotes and stories. These are not rich roles, not wholly unique in the history of television. They are not Bunk Moreland and Jimmy McNulty and Lester Freamon, who makes tiny dollhouse furniture for money on the side. Almost as if David Simon, who came from the Baltimore Sun, couldn’t write his own shop as real as the cops’. With that suspicion lingering, add a healthy skepticism of the whole faking-a-serial-killer premise, which seems far-fetched through the whole season. The reactions are pretty spot-on, but that it happens and that it ends as conveniently as it does, all hard to buy.
This is a lot of wasted (digital) ink on essentially a quibble. Only looking for a season that’s weaker that the rest. Is this show, in all of its parts, still the best goddamned show I’ve ever seen? Hell yes. There have been some contenders in its wake— once the prophet David Simon had shown them the way. Breaking Bad could be a strong competitor in the judgment of history, for example. Or Game of Thrones. But The Wire was the show that cemented the mega-story. That made it perfectly acceptable and indeed preferred to tell a sixty hour story instead of a two hour story, continuously through without stopping for bottle episodes of mid-season finales. And how do you do that? Don’t skimp on the characters.
Protip: You can re-watch The Wire in its entirety with an Amazon Prime membership. That’s how I did it. Here it is on the Amazons.